Recently I attended a writer’s conference in Utah where I was invited to participate on a panel for children’s writers. I was the only author on the panel representing middle-grade indie authors (or those that are self-published). It was a wonderful experience to sit next to top selling authors like Chad Morris, author of Cragbridge Hall series, and J. Scott Savage, author of the Farworld series and The Case File 13 series. Sometimes as an indie author I feel dwarfed when sitting next to these big names. However, I’ve learned they’re just like me: there to ‘write stories on the heart of children’
The panel started with the moderator asking us why we wrote children’s books. Many of the panelists had the same response that I did. It was a middle-grade book that sparked our love of reading. For me it was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I was a kid that didn’t have many friends, and I was isolated on a farm surrounded by a haunted forest (at least I thought it was haunted). That book helped me connect with another world: one filled with magic. It was the book that helped me discover the type of person I wanted to be. It taught me a valuable life lesson: If I want something, I have to work hard to get it. Dorothy just wasn’t told at the beginning to use her shoes—she was told after she’d tried everything else. After she’d traveled miles and miles through a foreign land filled with dangerous creatures and faced an evil witch, then she found she had the power all along to get home. For me as a boy, that was priceless information. Now I write the books I would have loved to read when I was kid. I want my books to have that magical realism but somewhere hidden in the text, there’s a message about strength and hope.
The next question was what is the most important thing to remember about writing children’s books. Many said to make them fun, engaging, thrilling, adventurous, ect. J. Scott Savage said to make them smart. He shared that when his editor at HarperCollins was reviewing the manuscript for Case Files 13: Zombie Kid, they asked him to change a few things that he just added. Scott was trying to make the book funnier by adding in some humor that would appeal to kids. He had a zombie dog get thrown from a car and then splat on the road. When he asked why they wanted it removed, they said, “We want this to be a smart book.” What they meant was: sure kids love the funny gore that comes with zombies, but adults don’t. With the growing number of adults reading middle-grade books, they wanted his book to be something that would be loved by both children and adults—a smart book. He made the changes and ended up getting a starred review from Kirkus Reviews (only given to the best of the best books).
Another question we had was what do include and exclude in middle-grade books. This was a fun question because we talked about several things that a lot of writers say DON’T put in middle-grade. One was horror. If your story has dark concepts you can still include them, you just don’t add a lot of details into it. With the lack of details, you allow the child to create in their mind what they can handle. Another was romance. A lot of people say, oh, don’t put that in. But guess what? Kids dig reading about “the crush”. Most of them actually will have their first crush around this time. But just like horror, you limit the details of things and you don’t move past the crush stage. Once that threshold is passed, you go into YA. We then moved on to what to include in middle-grade. Chad Morris shared that he liked his books to teach but in a fun way that kids didn’t pick up. (Yes, a little secret teachers and parents don’t want their kids to know: middle-grade books are filled with math, history, humanities, arts, and science). The trick is to make these educational moments fun. Chad’s books are a great example of this. His book is set in the distant future where kids learn through virtual experiences. Just check out the book trailer for The Inventor’s Secret (yes, it’s like a Hollywood movie preview). You’ll get how he makes history fun to learn about. Another set of books that have capitalized on the education fun aspect are The 39 Clues and The Infinity Ring series published by Scholastic. They teach loads of math, science and history in fun and fantastical ways.
As always, the panel ended with encouragement to aspiring authors. I counseled that in or to write really terrific middle-grade books you need to be reading really terrific middle-grade books. We learn as we read. (Yes, another little secret). I hope you have learned a little from this fun panel that I was able to take a part in. There was a ton of other great information given, but it was hard for me to take notes while up on the panel. Keep writing on the hearts of children! -Mikey Brooks